Two True Gifts of Christmas

imageThe best part of the Christmas season for me are those unexpected gifts of goodness, insight, connection, and light that sometimes come our way. They are gifts of magic. And they are all around us, when we are open to receiving them. Here are two from my world that may lift you up.

The first story is about Sister Lorraine Malo, a beautiful woman I have known for many years who died in June at the age of 76. She was born in 1936, and entered religious life in 1955 at the age 19. She was a woman of unshakeable faith, who lived through unspeakable horrors, and yet spent her life serving others–always smiling, always hopeful. For most of the last 10 years, she helped orphaned and very sick children in Haiti–befriending them, teaching them, consoling them, and playing with them. I just found out recently that she had died, and it made me very sad.image

On my way out of Toronto last week, I stopped in at the Sisters of St Joseph to make a donation towards the work she started in Haiti. I also hoped to speak to a sister who knew Sister Lorraine, and was with her at the end. And as luck would have it, I ended up having a very emotional chat with Sister Pat Boucher who shared with me some of the final days, moments, and memories with her. We both cried. Towards the end I noted that Sister Lorraine died just a few days shy of her 77th birthday. Sister Pat had asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday about two weeks prior to that.

Sister Lorraine said: “there is nothing to plan for me, Sister Pat…because I will be in heaven.”

If anyone deserves to be there, it is surely Sister Lorraine. And I have absolutely no doubt that she is there now, watching over all the souls she touched.

The second story happened just this past week. I stopped by to say hi to the Wongs, my next door neighbours for 15 years. I usually pop in once a year since since I moved away in 2008. Mr. and Mrs. Wong don’t speak English very well, but somehow we manage to communicate, at least superficially. Mrs. Wong and I had never shared more than a brief hug, but on this day, it was very different.

Mrs. Wong asked me for my address. I tried to explain that I don’t really have an official home address right now, following the profoundly painful experience earlier this year of separating from my wife. She locked onto my eyes and started crying. Then she held my hand, grabbed my arm, and tried to explain to me that her son was going through a similar experience, and how worried she was about him and her five-year-old granddaughter. I shared with her some thoughts on how I am somehow getting through this, and how important her family’s support and the support of her son’s friends would be over the coming months. She told me to be strong and to never doubt my goodness. And for the next 20 minutes or so she held onto me tightly and did not let go. She never stopped looking in my eyes.

It was an extended moment of very close, intense physical and emotional connection that I have very rarely felt in my life, in particular from a relative stranger. We locked onto each other, and somehow in those moments, we gave each other the gift of comfort.

“It is only in love that the human heart is happy and in loving action that fulfillment and peace reside.”–Sister Lorraine Malo

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Kiana

IMG_5339I recently returned from Halifax, Nova Scotia, visiting my son at university. We had a wonderful time together and I was pleased, and proud, to see him thriving in this new environment away from home. I also stayed with friends that I have not spent time with in many years.

There are a few moments in life where you can feel something shift, that cause you to see things differently. What follows was one of those moments for me.

One couple I stayed with, Tina and Sean, have a five-year old son, Hunter, and three-year old daughter, Kiana. This kid, in her short little life so far, has been through hundreds of medical procedures and surgeries to try to correct a serious intestinal disease she was born with. She recently underwent an ileostomy, a procedure that allows intestinal waste to be collected in an external pouch stuck to the skin. She is deaf in one ear. She also at high risk of brain tumours.

Most of us would feel sorry for little Kiana, and think how unfair all this is. How from the get go she has had the deck stacked against her. Some would say she is strong. Others might say she is brave. And I guess she is all of that. But Kiana knows no other way, and she is definitely not sorry for herself.

She has almost died several times. She has spent most of her life in the hospital, her parents worried sick each time she goes in that she may not come home. I simply cannot imagine the toll this must take, and how they somehow manage to cope. She has been through more adversity in the last three years than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes. Or in several lifetimes.

And yet the light that emanates from her is almost blinding.

I wonder how this is possible. How can a kid so young, who has been through so much pain and hardship, be so joyful? But it’s as though she doesn’t even realize the seriousness of her situation, and how tough she has it, compared to many of us.

Inspired only begins to scratch the surface of how little Kiana and her parents made me feel. And now when I think of them, it changes my perspective on my own life. Something shifted.

They say that there is always a silver lining, a gift hidden beneath the pain, struggle, and suffering. I find this really tough to accept, especially in someone so young. But still it makes me wonder if it is precisely the intensity of her journey that fuels her powerful flame, that makes her shine as brightly as she does?IMG_5337

To me, Kiana’s gift is that she is fully, truly alive. Through her life-threatening illness she has somehow gained the freedom to live.

And through this freedom, she offers her gift to the world.

And her gift to us is light.

The Doubt Worms

Last week I met with a group that is doing some wonderful humanitarian work in Africa. I have been looking to do something meaningful since my volunteer mission to Nicaragua earlier this year. It would appear that this group would welcome my expertise, and that if I want to do this, the opportunity is right there. I just need to say yes.

Almost immediately, the “what if” doubt worms set in. What if fail? What if I can’t do this? What if I’m not as good as they think I am? What if they discover that I am a fraud? Of course, my “right brain” knows that this is ridiculous. I am a 24-year communications veteran, and there is not much I haven’t seen (although I imagine Africa will challenge this). Of course you can do this, my rational side tries to tell me. But the doubt worms remain. They are pesky and persistent little creatures, reminding me of that niggly, familiar feeling that I may not be good enough.

And my instictive reaction to the unknown is fear. But perhaps, as Pema Chodron puts it, “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

I then met with my wife and son to get their thoughts. My wife had no doubt whatsoever in my ability to do this work. My son asked me what was the worst that could happen. Good advice and wisdom close to home. They made me wonder what life would be like if I were able to see myself as others see me. If I had as much confidence in myself as others have in me.

The truth is I don’t need to prove myself to anyone, not even myself. The truth is I am enough, just as I am.

I will try to stop thinking and analyzing. I will simply do my best. I will trust myself and accept what comes. And things will work out just fine. Hell, it might even be great!

This time I will not fight or run from the doubt worms. I will simply let them have their say, shine the light, and watch them wither away.

When Good Comes From Bad

Nothing will ever completely heal the hurt caused by the events of 11 years ago. But often good things can come from bad.

I had never read this until a friend just recently sent it my way. It was written by a flight attendant on Delta flight 15 that was diverted to Canada as the attacks on the US were happening.

It reminds me that within the darkness, of which there seems to be such an endless supply, there is always such great promise and potential for the light to shine through—and that the light is so much more powerful than the dark.

There seems to be no end to the misery that we inflict on one another. But there is also so much good. That is our true nature. We need to focus on that.

Read on.

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, we were about 5 hours out of Frankfurt, flying over the North Atlantic. All of a sudden the curtains parted and I was told to go to the cockpit, immediately, to see the captain. As soon as I got there I noticed that the crew had that “all business” look on their faces. The captain handed me a printed message. It was from Delta’s main office in Atlanta and simply read, “All airways over the continental United States are closed to commercial air traffic. Land ASAP at the nearest airport. Advise your destination.”

No one said a word about what this could mean. We knew it was a serious situation and we needed to find terra firma quickly. The captain determined that the nearest airport was 400 miles behind us in Gander, Newfoundland. He requested approval for a route change from the Canadian traffic controller and approval was granted immediately—no questions asked. We found out later, of course, why there was no hesitation in approving our request.

While the flight crew prepared the airplane for landing, another message arrived from Atlanta telling us about some terrorist activity in the New York area. A few minutes later word came in about the hijackings.

We decided to LIE to the passengers while we were still in the air. We told them the plane had a simple instrument problem and that we needed to land at the nearest airport in Gander, Newfoundland to have it checked out.

We promised to give more information after landing in Gander. There was much grumbling among the passengers, but that’s nothing new! Forty minutes later, we landed in Gander. Local time at Gander was 12:30 pm! …. that’s 11:00 am EST.

There were already about 20 other airplanes on the ground from all over the world that had taken this detour on their way to the U.S. After we parked on the ramp, the captain made the following announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same instrument problem as we have. The reality is that we are here for another reason.” Then he went on to explain the little bit we knew about the situation in the U.S. There were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. The captain informed passengers that ground control in Gander told us to stay put.

The Canadian Government was in charge of our situation and no one was allowed to get off the aircraft. No one on the ground was allowed to come near any of the air crafts. Only airport police would come around periodically, look us over and go on to the next airplane. In the next hour or so more planes landed and Gander ended up with 53 airplanes from all over the world, 27 of which were U.S. commercial jets.

Meanwhile, bits of news started to come in over the aircraft radio and for the first time we learned that airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in DC. People were trying to use their cell phones, but were unable to connect due to a different cell system in Canada. Some did get through, but were only able to get to the Canadian operator who would tell them that the lines to the U.S. were either blocked or jammed.

Sometime in the evening the news filtered to us that the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed and that a fourth hijacking had resulted in a crash. By now the passengers were emotionally and physically exhausted, not to mention frightened, but everyone stayed amazingly calm. We had only to look out the window at the 52 other stranded aircraft to realize that we were not the only ones in this predicament.

We had been told earlier that they would be allowing people off the planes one plane at a time. At 6 pm, Gander airport told us that our turn to deplane would be 11 am the next morning. Passengers were not happy, but they simply resigned themselves to this news without much noise and started to prepare themselves to spend the night on the airplane.

Gander had promised us medical attention, if needed, water, and lavatory servicing. And they were true to their word. Fortunately we had no medical situations to worry about. We did have a young lady who was 33 weeks into her pregnancy. We took REALLY good care of her. The night passed without incident despite the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.

About 10:30 on the morning of the 12th a convoy of school buses showed up. We got off the plane and were taken to the terminal where we went through Immigration and Customs and then had to register with the Red Cross.

After that we (the crew) were separated from the passengers and were taken in vans to a small hotel. We had no idea where our passengers were going. We learned from the Red Cross that the town of Gander has a population of 10,400 people and they had about 10,500 passengers to take care of from all the airplanes that were forced into Gander! We were told to just relax at the hotel and we would be contacted when the U.S. airports opened again, but not to expect that call for a while.

We found out the total scope of the terror back home only after getting to our hotel and turning on the TV, 24 hours after it all started.

Meanwhile, we had lots of time on our hands and found that the people of Gander were extremely friendly. They started calling us the “plane people.” We enjoyed their hospitality, explored the town of Gander and ended up having a pretty good time.

Two days later, we got that call and were taken back to the Gander airport. Back on the plane, we were reunited with the passengers and found out what they had been doing for the past two days. What we found out was incredible.

Gander and all the surrounding communities (within about a 75 kilometer radius) had closed all high schools, meeting halls, lodges, and any other large gathering places. They converted all these facilities to mass lodging areas for all the stranded travelers. Some had cots set up, some had mats with sleeping bags and pillows set up.

ALL the high school students were required to volunteer their time to take care of the “guests.” Our 218 passengers ended up in a town called Lewisporte, about 45 kilometers from Gander where they were put up in a high school. If any women wanted to be in a women-only facility, that was arranged. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers were taken to private homes.

Remember that young pregnant lady? She was put up in a private home right across the street from a 24-hour urgent care facility. There was a dentist on call and both male and female nurses remained with the crowd for the duration.

Phone calls and e-mails to the U.S. and around the world were available to everyone once a day. During the day, passengers were offered “excursion” trips. Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbours. Some went for hikes in the local forests. Local bakeries stayed open to make fresh bread for the guests. Food was prepared by all the residents and brought to the schools. People were driven to restaurants of their choice and offered wonderful meals. Everyone was given tokens for local laundry mats to wash their clothes, since luggage was still on the aircraft. In other words, every single need was met for those stranded travelers.

Passengers were crying while telling us these stories. Finally, when they were told that U.S. airports had reopened, they were delivered to the airport right on time and without a single passenger missing or late. The local Red Cross had all the information about the whereabouts of each and every passenger and knew which plane they needed to be on and when all the planes were leaving. They coordinated everything beautifully. It was absolutely incredible.

When passengers came on board, it was like they had been on a cruise. Everyone knew each other by name. They were swapping stories of their stay, impressing each other with who had the better time. Our flight back to Atlanta looked like a chartered party flight. The crew just stayed out of their way. It was mind-boggling. Passengers had totally bonded and were calling each other by their first names, exchanging phone numbers,addresses, and email addresses.

And then a very unusual thing happened. One of our passengers approached me and asked if he could make an announcement over the PA system. We never, ever allow that. But this time was different. I said “of course” and handed him the mike. He picked up the PA and reminded everyone about what they had just gone through in the last few days. He reminded them of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He continued by saying that he would like to do something in return for the good folks of Lewisporte.

He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15 (our flight number). The purpose of the trust fund is to provide college scholarships for the high school students of Lewisporte. He asked for donations of any amount from his fellow travelers. When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addresses, the total was for more than $14,000!

The gentleman, a MD from Virginia, promised to match the donations and to start the administrative work on the scholarship. He also said that he would forward this proposal to Delta Corporate and ask them to donate as well. As I write this account, the trust fund is at more than $1.5 million and has assisted 134 students in college education.

I just wanted to share this story because we need good stories right now. It gives me a little bit of hope to know that some people in a far away place were kind to some strangers who literally dropped in on them. It reminds me how much good there is in the world.

In spite of all the rotten things we see going on in today’s world this story confirms that there are still a lot of good and Godly people in the world and when things get bad, they will come forward.

God Bless America…and the Canadians.